Airbnb’s pivot from short-term to long-term stays runs into legal roadblock in Vancouver

By Lisa Tanh

Airbnb’s pivot from short-term to long-term stays in Vancouver in the wake of COVID-19 could land both the hosts and the platform in legal trouble, and a city councillor has brought an urgent motion to get ahead of the situation.

“Airbnb’s website and its hosts-turned-landlords add fees to the monthly rate such as service charges, cleaning fees, and taxes,” said Ulrike Rodrigues, a local housing activist. “These are prohibited in Section 15 of the Residential Tenancy Act.”

On Twitter, other activists have highlighted that some stand to make a massive profit by creating two listings for the same unit on Airbnb and Craigslist. The monthly cost listed on Airbnb is often much higher and sometimes double than the cost on Craigslist.

In one case, a host offered their home for $7,716 per month, including fees, on Airbnb and $3,800 per month on Craigslist. In another case, $4,713 on Airbnb and $2,400 on Craigslist. In a third case, $2,306 on Airbnb and $1,900 on Craigslist.

Currently, there are no regulations around these types of long-term rental operators, even though there’s a rising number of them, and many do not have a business license. 

“This is a legal blurring of the lines between a ‘stay’ and a ‘rental,’ and it leaves our citizens vulnerable as they seek housing,” said Rodrigues. “In this time of crisis, we need strong action.”

To help guide the City of Vancouver, Rodrigues co-authored a report outlining the many issues and potential solutions. She also asked city councillors to ask their staff and Airbnb contacts to collect data on the conversion of short-term occupancies into long-term tenancies.

In response, councillor Pete Fry submitted a motion that will go before the city council on May 26. His requests include asking staff to review short-term rental licensing fees, regulations and safety, and inform license holders that they can only rent a unit for less than 30 consecutive days. Otherwise, they must apply for a long-term rental business license and pay a separate fee.

Back in April, Airbnb redesigned its website and added new tools to promote long-term stays after losing billions of dollars amid COVID-19. Eighty per cent of hosts now accept long-term stays and nearly 50 per cent of them are offering discounts.

After the change, the company admitted they still expect a significant loss of business and wrote a letter to the federal government asking for financial support and tax breaks for hosts. Three weeks later, they managed to raise $1 billion in debt and equity from private equity firms. Part of the funds will go towards pushing long-term stays.